Dave Arneson as a child

Guest Review Dave Arneson: True Genius

Guest Writer: Nick Monitto


I would imagine it is a safe presumption that anyone reading this website is a fan of Role-Playing Games.  Given the strong emphasis on here for original old-school and OSR products, it is also probably a good bet that readers will know of the original TSR and its stable of games, led by the well-known “Dungeons & Dragons”.  Ask most gamers about the creation of “D&D” and you will hear repeated mention of Gary Gygax, certainly an important figure in both gaming (in general) and at TSR (in specific).

The name of Dave Arneson is not as well known, though, and that is a shame.  I knew of him, but not as well as I perhaps should have.  For me, he was the creator of the “Blackmoor” realm that I had seen as a supplement for the original “Dungeons & Dragons” game.  Later I found his name on a series of adventure modules that seemed to run the gamut from city to wilderness to some far future setting!

Several books have been written over the years about Gygax, but this is the first I have come across about Arneson.  Technically, this is not a book in the traditional sense.  Rather, it is a series of three essays by Robert J. Kuntz, a name which also should be known to fans of RPGs both past and present.  This is what I would consider a deeply academic work, and I do mean that in a positive way.  The writing is very detailed, with numerous footnotes to give background and definitions.  Its depth seems to speak to Kuntz’s love for the game, and for Arneson himself, urging others to understand just how important his contributions were.

Robert J. Kuntz and wife. Author photo

Robert J. Kuntz and wife. Author photo

The first essay, entitled “From Vision to Vicissitude: The Rise and Reversal of Arneson’s RPG Concept” is the longest and most detailed of the three.  It begins by quoting Herbert Simon’s explanation of a scientist’s problem-solving path as being like “…a search through a maze”- seemingly appropriate for the subject at hand!  Further down in the quote we find the key parts for Kuntz’s foundation.  Explaining that problem solving involves transformation of current expressions to new ones (and testing them to see if they are reaching the goal), Kuntz uses this as the framework for Arneson taking existing open and closed gaming systems, and transforming them into an entirely new one.  He presents a long list of the leaps in design that were made with his “First Fantasy Campaign” (aka the aforementioned “Blackmoor”) including “World Building”, “The ‘Unending Story’”, and “No ‘right way’ to play”, something which is particularly significant in later matters.

Kuntz then moves ahead to 1974 to discuss the early days of TSR, as the company enjoys dramatic growth and expansion.  The “Dungeons & Dragons” game was a new thing entirely at that time.  For its players, it was not just about buying the products and consuming them for their entertainment.  Now, they were getting something that they could use to create their entertainment for themselves.  While holding on to this philosophy strongly in the early days, TSR’s first products were more like true supplements.  Players were encouraged to take things as catalysts and use them, in part or in whole, to create their own adventures and worlds.  Given the way that some companies operate nowadays, this can seem like a rather odd approach indeed.

Next, we are brought back to the end of Simon’s quote, where “…Indications of progress spur further search in the same direction; lack of progress signals the abandonment of a line of search.”  We see how TSR has started to spread out, offering a wide range of games while still remaining strongly behind “Dungeons & Dragons”.  There were more products being put out, but they were along the lines of mapping aids or charts of monsters & treasure- the kinds of things that still fed into a do-it-yourself approach.

The narrative becomes rather personal at this point, when Kuntz describes a stockholder’s meeting that turns rather contentious.  Arneson felt that he was being overlooked and underused in his time at the company, so he and others thought that an additional member on the board would help to alleviate that.  I will leave the details to your own reading in the essay but spoiler alert:  the discussion turned ugly pretty quickly, and the fallout was fast and furious.  Kuntz himself and Dave Megarry (one of Arneson’s friends) resigned from TSR within a handful of days afterward. Kuntz’s brother Terry and Arneson himself were pushed out shortly thereafter.  This was perhaps the first of several seismic changes the company would eventually see.

The next section starts with several quotes from Gygax, some of which seem quite contradictory, as to whether “Dungeons & Dragons” should be viewed as something where the rules are strict constructionalist, or more loosey-goosey.  We see the game, under Gygax’s hand, move away from that earlier “no ‘right way’ to play” idea and become remade into a more closed system.  Stronger rule sets and the new focus on adventure modules made for a more rigid game; at least as far as the marketers and product makers were concerned.  Kuntz notes that the feeling seemed to be such that “less choice equals less monetary yield”, an idea that he strongly disagrees with, and I find myself largely on his side in that matter.  In fact this idea seems to have grown for quite a long time with the game, and I am not sure if it has really eased off yet.

He concludes by bringing it all together with the meat of Simon’s quote, that TSR made “progress towards the goal” with the use of Arneson’s concept, but that they went on to “diverge” and change in order to “[increase] the market yield”.  Arneson’s original strong idea was taken in and used for a time, but then cut down and sacrificed, losing some of its greatest aspects.

The second essay, “Dimensionality in Design: An Examination of Dave Arneson’s System of Systems Thinking” is perhaps like a bit of engineering, after the first largely conceptual discussion.  The “System of Systems” idea is defined as “viewing independent systems as part of a more complex one”, where you learn about the smaller parts to something in order to understand the bigger thing they make up.

Not simply adapting to what was then the mentality of the market, Arneson kept true to his ideas and sensed out for himself what the next steps forward should be.  He was able to make a number of “dimensional leaps”, going above and beyond what had come before.  Kuntz uses the metaphor of a work table containing thousands of odd parts.  One can start to combine them and see if the desired functionality is achieved.  You keep on adding and subtracting the parts, and each step creates a new situation, a new ‘start’.  But the connection with past steps is irrelevant, only progressing towards the goal.

Kuntz concludes the second essay stating that the dimensionality (defined as complexity joined with diversity) that Arneson started to show in early “Blackmoor” and “Dungeons & Dragons” has still not reached its full potential.  Market pressures, as they did decades ago when Arneson began his writing, continue to fuel stagnation even today.
The final essay, “Debunking the Chainmail/Braunstein ‘Derivation’ Claims” goes after one of the biggest issues, and one of the things that I had heard myself, before reading this work.  The assumed history (helped along by some of Gygax’s quotes) claims that the original “Dungeons & Dragons” game descended from the “Chainmail” and/or “Braunstein” games.  This part is the briefest of the three, diving in quickly and making its case rather effectively.  Arneson had a conceptual model that was tested for two years before it was brought to folks in Lake Geneva.  The model and concept itself was never truly altered, just that subsystems were added on.

This essay feels almost as though it has gained momentum from the previous two: Kuntz presents his case in just seven pages, all of them quite well-used.  For example, nearly two full pages of bullet points list characteristics of Arneson’s system, and in almost every case we are shown that neither of these other games contains those features.  Kuntz concludes with a nice afterword that ties things together and provides a bit of a teaser for a more detailed future book.

For a piece with a relatively small page count, it is definitely a heavy read.  I ended up going through it twice, a few days apart, as I put together this review.  But unlike some things I have encountered, Kuntz’s essays are heavy from a purpose and depth of substance.  I do recommend this as a good piece for anyone who is interested in learning about the method of Arneson’s work.  As I noted in the beginning, we are greatly lacking for writing about the history of Dave Arneson himself and about his side of the creation of “Dungeons & Dragons”.  Let us hope that this is only the beginning, and that more books will be written before too long.

Robert Kuntz’ website can be found at Three Line Studio.

Nick Monitto is a gaming geek who came of age on the classic games of the 1970’s and 80’s.  He is spending some free time now trying to decide on his secret agent code name identity.

Related Post